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Sher Thing

Director Bartlett Sher tackles Cymbeline, one of Shakespeare's most beautiful and problematic plays. logo
Erica Tazel and Michael Stuhlbarg in Cymbeline
(Photo: Manuel Harlan)
Raise your hand if you've seen Cymbeline. Well, you're not alone. Shakespeare's late-period romance is one of his least frequently produced plays; it was last seen on "Broadway" in 1923 at Jolson's East 59th Street Theatre, and even the Bard's biggest supporter, The Public, has only tackled it sporadically--most recently in a well-regarded 1998 production at the Delacorte, directed by Andrei Serban.

Directors often stay away from Cymbeline because its plot is extremely convoluted, even for Shakespeare: separated lovers, lost children, Queen tries to kill King, etc. Other challenges in staging the work include its trio of locales (Britain, Wales, Italy) and an impossibly happy ending. So it seemed more than a little odd that, when Theatre for a New Audience was invited by the Royal Shakespeare Company to bring a play to Stratford-Upon-Avon--the first time any American company had been accorded this honor--it chose Cymbeline. But TFANA founder Jeffrey Horowitz, who started the company 23 years ago with the proceeds from a lawsuit arising out of a fire in his apartment, proved to be crazy like a fox. Directed by Bartlett Sher, a TFANA vet and artistic director of Seattle's well-regarded Intiman Theatre, Cymbeline was a huge hit with critics and audiences alike. Now, TFANA hopes history will be repeated during the show's current five-week run at The Lucille Lortel. (In April, the company will present Max Frisch's even more rarely seen Andorra--a parable about anti-Semitism--directed by Liviu Ciulei and featuring a new translation by Michael Feingold.)

TFANA's Cymbeline is as far from the standard RSC model as one can get: Sher has incorporated elements of Kabuki, African percussion, and the Wild West. He has taken the color-blind route in casting the lead couple, Imogen and Posthumus. And he has chosen to have everyone on stage--including such first-rate Shakespearean actors as Randy Danson, Earl Hindman, Boris McGiver, and Andrew Weems--sound more like John Wayne than John Gielgud. "It is very American sounding, but the whole cast has a shared approach to the rhythm; I am a real stickler about being rigorous about the verse," says Sher, who studied at Leeds University in England. "In going to the RSC, I thought it was so important to make sure we brought something fresh. The last thing you want to do is bring an all-white cast with bad English accents. Yet, it was important to show them we had the technique to do Shakespeare. Technique is what gives you authority."

Sher, who directed the TFANA's Obie-winning production of Waste two years ago, has been acquainted with Cymbeline for many years; he first staged it at the Idaho Shakespeare Festival and it was his debut offering as artistic director of the Intiman. Horowitz says that, as soon as he saw the Intiman production, he began thinking about bringing some version of it overseas: "I was struck by the American-ness of it and the use of multiculturalism. I thought how wonderful it would be for the English to hear a British play like this. Of course, I wanted Bartlett to further explore the play and use some new actors, costumes and music." Horowitz approached TFANA associate Cicely Berry, who happens to be the RSC's director of voice, and the trans-Atlantic transfer was soon in the works.

Horowitz admits that there were also some very practical considerations in choosing Cymbeline for export. "I knew whatever we brought there was going to open our New York season as well, so it couldn't be something we had already done," he explains. "On the other hand, with only a three-week run and limited rehearsal time, it couldn't be something brand new, either. It also didn't hurt that even the RSC hadn't done the play in 13 years."

Bartlett Sher
Sher, who cut his directorial teeth at such regional mainstays as the Guthrie and Hartford Stage, has helmed 18 of the Bard's plays during his career (he will bring Titus Andronicus to the Intiman this spring), but he has a special fondness for Cymbeline. "I have always thought it was an incredible story," he says, "and that last act is so audacious, so joyful, extraordinary, amazing. It proves that miracles can be made through art. I love what it says: that, no matter how far we get from the people we love, there is always a possibility of being reconnected." This message will surely have extra resonance in light of the events of September 11. "In New York right now, there is this longing for the world we once knew," says Sher, "and the play is about finding one's way back or forward to that world.

Horowitz concurs. "Cymbeline a very beautiful play in terms of its themes of love, reconciliation and forgiveness. By the end, everyone has stopped fighting and forgiven each other. It's the ultimate healing. And I think people today will especially relate to Imogen. Her family has exiled her, she believes her husband is dead, she has even lost her sexual identity and been forced to travel as a boy...yet she still goes on."

Though a lesser-known character than Portia, Viola, or Ophelia, Imogen is one of the Bard's most fascinating and complicated women. "She is the most pursued heroine in Shakespeare, the only one I know who has three suitors," Horowitz points out. And while Cymbeline is definitely an ensemble piece, TFANA is taking a chance by entrusting Imogen to the very young, African-American actress Erica Tazel. "Bart really wanted a pair of young performers for the leads, which is not always the way it's done," says Horowitz, pointing out that a 38-year-old Helen Mirren played the part in the celebrated 1983 RSC version. "It can be a risky approach."

Both Horowitz and Sher were enchanted by Tazel's performance as Perdia in The Winter's Tale at The Public two seasons back; Cymbeline's Posthumus, Michael Stuhlbarg, also appeared in that production. Says Horowitz of Tazel, "She has that rare natural quality of regality, and yet she has such warmth. When I saw her in Winter's Tale, she just felt like a princess."

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